Meet the clans who have shaped Sonoma’s wine scene—and the new generation that’s redefining it once again
The Coppolas, est. 1978
On a sunny day in Sonoma County, Francis Ford Coppola sits under a tree, swiping at his phone. He owns the tree, as well as the 24 acres of vineyards surrounding it. He owns the winery up the hill from the tree, another one 4 miles down the road, and one more an hour away in Napa Valley. He owns three luxury resorts in Central America, a boutique hotel in Buenos Aires, a palazzo in Southern Italy, a pasta line, and a literary magazine.
In the time it took to write that paragraph, I received an email informing me that Francis Ford Coppola had purchased a “casually elegant private island 8 miles off the coast of Belize,” which is now open to the public. You can vacation there for $1,000 a night, personal chef not included.
At 77, Francis Ford Coppola, the bearded, bereted icon of American cinema, is busier than at any time during his Hollywood career. These days, the man behind The Godfather and Apocalypse Now pours his creative energy into a hospitality business that spans the globe. But his biggest hit, the one that most clearly articulates his passion, is rooted right here in California wine country. Since its opening in Alexander Valley 10 years ago, Francis Ford Coppola Winery has transformed the Sonoma wine scene, attracting some 200,000 annual visitors to the quieter north side of the county.
“I love the drive over here, always have,” says Francis, looking, himself, casually elegant in a cream linen blazer and khaki pants. A few yards away sits the red Tesla that ferried him here from his Rutherford ranch, the driver dozing in the front seat. We’re spread out before a row of Cabernet vines doing what people do most on photo shoots. We’re waiting.
“Is she on her way?” Francis asks in the direction of an assistant.
“She’s stuck in traffic. Another 10 minutes.”
“Why didn’t she just take the plane?”
“ … ”
Stuck in traffic is Gia Coppola, a high branch on the celebrity-ripened Coppola family tree. The only daughter of Francis’s oldest son, Gian Carlo, who died in a boating accident in 1986, Gia is the latest Coppola to heed the family calling. At 29, her résumé includes work as a photographer, filmmaker, actress, fashion designer, and now winemaker.
While we wait, day-tasters stream in by the busload. Families with kids, couples on vacation, a group of helmeted retirees in “Will Pedal for Pinot” shirts. They’re entering not so much a winery as they are Francis Ford Coppola’s fantastical vision of what a winery can be, complete with swimming pool, movie props, and pristine tasting bars at every turn. Squint past the grapevines and you could be poolside at a Las Vegas resort or on the top deck of a cruise ship.
“It was very controversial when we opened here,” says Francis. “People thought, Oh, here comes this Hollywood guy with his Hollywood ideas. He’s going to ruin our county. But my idea was to have a place you could come with your children, your parents. I wanted there to be something else to do than just taste wine. I wanted it to be a place for families.”
There’s that word. Family. You can’t poke your head too deep down the F.F.C. rabbit hole without confronting it. In his world, food, wine, family, art—they’re all intertwined, each nourishing the others. It’s why, even as a young filmmaker, he cast his siblings in his movies, despite their lack of experience. And it’s why he has encouraged his children and grandchildren to take part in the wine business.
“Francis isn’t into gimmicks,” says the Sonoma operation’s longtime winemaker, Corey Beck. “If he decides to get someone involved on a project, it’s because he knows they can contribute, that they have ideas. His instincts are impeccable.”
When Francis and daughter-filmmaker Sofia Coppola said they wanted to make a sparkling wine in a can, Beck hesitated. “We were like, Okay, how’s that going to happen?” he says. “This was 16 years ago, no one was doing wine in a can, let alone a sparkling wine. But we experimented and came up with something that worked. Today it’s one of our most popular products.”
Gia has her own ideas. Before delving into film, she studied mixology and later took a sommelier training class through chef Thomas Keller’s restaurant group. “That really opened my eyes to wine,” she says. The Gia by Gia Coppola brand, now two years old, focuses on lighter, brighter wines with lower alcohol content: Frizzante, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Noir aged in stainless steel, rather than oak, which gives it an almost rosélike complexion. All three bottles clock in at less than $20. They’re wines geared toward younger, more cash-strapped drinkers, a group who likely cares more about value and quality and less about the canonical films of the 1970s. Gia now sits on the company’s board of directors, where she’ll be able to watch over the Coppola brand, and the Coppola name, for generations to come.
Family is everything.
Especially in the wine business. The image of the independent, mom- and pop-owned vineyard is central to the mythos of an industry that’s becoming increasingly corporatized. Take, for example, the story of Chateau Souverain. The revered Alexander Valley label dates back to the 1940s, when it was founded by pioneering winemaker Lee Stewart. In 1999, the winery was sold to an Australian conglomerate with more than a dozen brands in its portfolio, including Foster’s beer. Quality dipped, along with tasting room -attendance, and within a few years the company offloaded its 24-acre Geyserville chateau to the highest bidder. The new owner? Francis Ford Coppola.
“We’re in a time of acquisition and consolidation,” says David Ramey, owner of Ramey Wine Cellars in nearby Healdsburg. He was glad to see the Coppolas land in Geyserville. Investment, he says, translates to more traffic, which means more jobs for locals. Francis employs some 400 people in Sonoma, and he’s just getting started: Last year, he took over Geyser Peak Winery (from a different Australian conglomerate) and opened Virginia Dare Winery.
“Any time you see a historic property change hands from a faceless, international corporation to a family—even a family that’s hugely successful with a side business in cinema—it’s a great thing for Sonoma,” Ramey says.
As Francis puts it to me: “Wine and family have always gone hand in hand. Good business has to do with people—people you break bread with, people you celebrate and mourn with. Without that familial love and passion, without that bond, it all falls apart.”
“Gia’s here!” a woman with a walkie-talkie announces, and soon the vineyard is flooded with people. Publicists and stylists close in, followed by assistants and assistants’ assistants. Sunlight is shielded, screens swiped at. A girl with frizzy brown hair stands by a grape trellis, holding a stack of shoe boxes.
Gia arrives. She’s tall and waistless with fidgety hands and a broad, sneaky smile. “Grandpa,” she beams. There’s a long, soulful embrace and, for anyone who knows The Godfather, a faint reminder of that scene in the garden in which Brando, the Old Don, plays with his grandson.
Later Gia will tell me that she grew up running through her grandpa’s vineyards, and that every August, as a tradition, she and her grandmother still pick blackberries and prepare jam for the family. She’ll tell me that at first she was intimidated by the wine business, until her grandpa explained that making wine and making movies adhere to the same creative processes: the gathering, the refining, the packaging.
“Except when you’re done with a film,” Gia will say, “that’s it. There’s no going back. But with wine … wine you can keep making better and better.”
The sun slants low in the sky by the time Gia and Francis find their spots in front of the camera. It’s one of those perfect Sonoma afternoons. Warm but not hot, a soft breeze kicking over the valley. The woman with the walkie-talkie clears the set so that it’s just grandfather and granddaughter, side by side, each with a glass of wine, each smiling for the family business. —Nino Padova
The Robledo, est. 2003
Sonoma has its share of gentlemen vintners who enjoy the finer pleasures of winemaking without getting dirt under their fingernails. But it’s also the grape-stomping grounds of Reynaldo Robledo, a pioneering figure who turns that genteel image on its head. In 1968, at age 16, Reynaldo left his home in Michoacán, Mexico, and worked his way north to Calistoga, where he scratched out a living in the vineyards, earning as little as $1.10 an hour. As he picked and pruned, he planned and saved. Eventually, he’d set aside enough money to buy a house, followed by a modest parcel he planted with vines.
“There was no free time, only work, work, work,” Reynaldo recalls. “But that’s what you do when you have a dream.”
At 65 and silver haired, Reynaldo today is the patriarch of a robust family business, and the founder of the first winery in the United States owned by a former migrant worker from Mexico. The trail he blazed has since been followed by a growing number of Mexican American vintners, among them Reynaldo’s own children. He and his wife, Maria, have nine sons and daughters. Six are involved in the operation, managing the tasting room, the cellars, and the vineyards, which now encompass roughly 350 acres, stretching from Sonoma into Napa and Lake Counties.
“My dad had me out there with him almost from the time I could walk, riding with him on the tractor, helping the guys prune,” says Everardo Robledo, 40, the third-oldest and a winemaker. “This work runs in my blood.”
It still flows in his father’s too. Almost 50 years removed from his humble start, Reynaldo rises early every morning to walk the vineyards, checking on the fruit and the vines. “I tell my children this,” he says. “ ‘No matter your success, you should never forget where you began.’ ” That sentiment is embodied by a bottle that hangs in a wooden frame in the tasting room: a 1992 Pinot Noir, the first wine Reynaldo ever made. —Josh Sens
The Marianis, est. 2007
In the rolling foothills of Sonoma County, it doesn’t feel quite right to speak of street cred. Better to refer to a kind of rustic rootedness, a respect for the old ways even while moving toward something new.
However you define it, Andrew and Adam Mariani have it. Siblings, in their 30s, from a fourth-generation California farming family, they both decided during college that they wanted a life in viniculture. “It was familiar, but also super creative and mysterious,” says Andrew. The brothers worked as vineyard hands in Europe, and in 2007, Andrew bought a winery in the Sonoma foothills. His brother joined him a few years later and together they launched a winery. They called it Scribe, a reflection of their urge to tell a story through their wine.
It’s a good one to relate over a glass or two. The land where Scribe sits operated as a Gold Rush–era vineyard, which transformed during Prohibition into a bootlegging outfit and then operated as a turkey farm until the Marianis moved in. By that point, the vineyards were gone and the grounds were in shambles. The brothers revived it, restoring the early-1900s hacienda and planting pre-Prohibition grape varietals, like Riesling and Sylvaner, that fit the setting even if they weren’t all the rage. “When we started Scribe, it hammered home the idea of terroir—letting the site express itself through the wines,” says Adam.
Nearly a decade later, Scribe has taken shape as one of Sonoma’s “it” destinations (it’s also expanded as a family business, with sister Kelly Mariani and Andrew’s wife, Lia, taking charge of the food and design). On weekends, the hacienda often doubles as a backdrop for dinner parties that draw top Bay Area chefs. And by day, visitors run no risk of stiff-lipped wine talk in a stodgy tasting room. Think outdoor tables, blankets laid out on the grass, and refreshing wines that resist easy labels. “A lot of people think we scored in the tech world when they first meet us,” says Adam. “But when you see the property and taste the wines, you get a much bigger picture.” —Josh Sens
The Gallos, est. 1933
Memories of 21st birthdays aren’t generally long on clarity. But for Gina Gallo—who heads up winemaking at the largest family-owned winery in the world—a moment at her 21st party practically clinched her career. A student at the University of California, Davis, she was showing promise in her viticulture and enology classes, especially with aromatics in wine. With the clan gathered to celebrate her birthday, her grandfather, Julio, got up and said, “Gina, please, any day, join our tasting panel!”
That was no casual invitation in the Gallo family. The tasting panel was all male, as was the norm in the industry. But Julio and great-uncle Ernest, who launched the brand together in 1933, encouraged Gina to step into a winemaking role: “My uncle—progressive for his day—trusted me. He said, ‘Gina, you’re a lady, but you know how to make wine. Now get in there and do this.’ ”
Julio and Ernest may have given her a shot, but Gina earned her way to the top winemaking job. Starting as an apprentice to winemaker Marcello Monticelli (who’s still with the company) in 1990, she moved up the ranks, becoming senior director of winemaking in 2006. “Sure, they gave me a platform,” Gina says, “and not everyone gets a platform. But once you’re there, you have to show up and perform.”
High expectations permeated the extended family culture and motivated each new generation. Multiple members now oversee everything from vineyards and vats to getting new and better bottles into ever more wine aisles. “We learned the values of my family from a young age, from our grandparents, parents, aunts, and uncles,” says Gina, who is married to fellow wine-industry scion Jean-Charles Boisset. “I’m fortunate to work with many of these family members, like my cousin Joe.” She and Joe, vice president of marketing & sales, work closely together on the Gallos’ premium wines.
If serendipity can be found in the Gallo world, Gina’s early-’90s timing on the winemaking scene had all the hallmarks. Having achieved early success with low-cost wine blends—many in jugs—at a time when no one was drinking by variety in this country, the Gallos were ready to hang their hat on much better wines. And with the Gallo of Sonoma brand, they locked in an identity with finer wines and with the region. “I remember my grandfather saying, ‘Sonoma can do everything! If you want Zinfandel, you can do that. If you want Pinot Noir, you can do that …’ ”
For her part, Gina has gone all-in for the family legacy with the Gallo Signature Series of wines, which she launched several years ago. What’s inside the bottles is beautifully crafted. What’s on the outside, Gina hopes, will evolve through the years. Today the labels read, “Gina Gallo, Winemaker.” “Tomorrow,” she says, “that might be my niece or my nephew. I hope so.”
Interestingly enough, Gallo has left her 5-year-old twin daughters out of the prediction. Doesn’t she have a dream about them joining the family business behind her? “God, no,” says Gina. “They have to find their own passions, as my parents insisted I find mine.” —Sara Schneider